A political history

The first big political event I ever went to was a mass picket in North London in 1977, when I was still at school. This was at a small factory called Grunwick’s, just outside Dollis Hill tube station, where for some months there’d been a strike for trade union recognition led by Asian women. In those days it was still legal to have mass pickets, and there were now, regularly, thousands of people lining the streets of Willesden in support of the strikers. It was a political lesson in many respects - for one thing because the police would violently attack the picket lines to break them up and allow lorries into the factory.

My strongest memory of this day was when, suddenly, the crowd started chanting ‘The workers united will never be defeated!’- and round the corner came a large contingent from the National Union of Mineworkers. The excitement was because the NUM was the most powerful of all the trade unions, the heavy battalions of the labour movement.

It was the NUM which had brought down the last Tory government, in 1974. After a bitter miners’strike, Prime Minister Edward Heath called an election - over the question ‘Who rules?’, meaning him, or the miners. The electorate duly kicked him out.

The Tories, of course, wanted revenge. But that’s running ahead of my story.

The centrality of the miners to the working class movement in Britain followed, partly, from the centrality of coal to British capitalism. The miners were at the heart of the General Strike of 1926 (indeed stayed on strike for six months after the General Strike was called off). The strike at the start of 1974 wasn’t the only one Heath had faced; there was a huge strike in 1972. Disrupting the production of coal, of course, could affect the whole economy: it gave the miners particular ‘muscle’. (One memory of childhood was of power cuts - our whole family sitting in candlelight playing music on a battery-run cassette player - probably in 1972. The power cuts were the result, directly or indirectly, of the miners’strike).

The Tories wanted revenge. This is not exaggeration, or hypothetical. In 1977 Tory MP Nicholas Ridley came up with a report (known as the ‘Ridley Plan’, or ‘Ridley Report’) on how to defeat the trade unions when the Conservatives were next in power. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ridley_Plan). Central to the plan was provoking a confrontation with the miners and defeating them. Since it’s easier to defeat a miners’strike in the Spring and Summer (because people don’t need heating), they picked their battle at the start of Spring, 1984 - March 6, to be precise. They declared the closure of - they said - 20 pits, with a loss of 20,000 jobs. (The NUM knew the plan was really for more, but the government denied this). The strike broke out.

I won’t tell the story of the strike itself, here. Suffice to say that it was a dispute which, of course, lasted a year (almost exactly), and which divided the country. Every high street soon had stalls where people were raising money for the striking miners and their families - especially after the Tory government ‘sequestrated’their funds, that is, froze the union’s assets.

Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners grew out of the same desire to help the miners that many others felt. We understood that if the miners lost - if the ‘big battalions’of the trade union movement could be defeated - not only would it be disastrous for their communities (pits were usually the main employers in those communities, and without them the communities themselves would be devastated); it would be a disaster for all of us. The Tories would use their victory to ride roughshod over all our rights.

The lesbian and gay community (we didn’t used to say ‘LGBT’or ‘LGBTQ’ etc, in those days. Indeed, I think it was pretty cutting edge to include the ‘L’!) was the most visible it had ever been, but still vulnerable. Male homosexuality had been decriminalised in 1967 - that is, less than 20 years earlier. Or to put that another way, in my own lifetime it had been illegal to be gay. The Age of Consent (for men) was still 21, which meant all my early sexual activity had been illegal, and it was still illegal for me to have a boyfriend three years younger than me (I was 24 when the strike broke out). Clubs were still sometimes raided by the police; there was a widespread practice of what was  called ‘pretty policing’(a cop would make a pass at you and then arrest you). I’m describing here, of course, the experience as it was for a young gay man. The legal situation for lesbians had been different, but they faced similar problems in terms of social attitudes, and so forth.

Many of us understood that our rights depended on the ability of wider social forces, and in particular the labour movement, to resist attacks on theirs. We had more in common with the striking miners, in this sense, than whatever differences there might seem to be.

We witnessed first hand how the experience of struggle transformed the communities affected. Our solidarity played a role, for sure, in changing attitudes in those communities to lesbian and gay rights. But it was by no means only that. The lives of the women in mining communities were transformed through Women Against Pit Closures; for many of them life would never be the same.

Of course, many of us would have supported the miners anyway; it wasn’t a cynical or purely self-interested argument. Many of us (when LGSM started, at least) had been active on the left, or in what would now be called ‘social movements’(like the Gay Liberation Front), in some cases going back a decade or more. As I’ve said, I got involved in the left when I was at school, in 1977. (By the time of the miners’strike I’d already done a fair bit of running away from police with riot shields at mass pickets!).

So - we rattled buckets and raised money for the striking miners. This part of the LGSM story is well-known, now, of course, so I won’t dwell on it. It was an extraordinary year.

But the miners lost.

The consequences of that defeat for the mining communities themselves are obvious. The Tories were lying that it was only 20 pits they wanted to close; the NUM were quite right about that.

More generally, it’s hard fully to calculate or assess the effects of the miners’defeat. Everything that’s happened since has been shaped, in my view, by the defeat of the NUM. It’s not the only factor, but it’s a big one, in the decline in strength of the trade union movement as a whole, the relative weakness of the working class movement in fighting for worker’s rights. The defeat contributed to the move to the right in the Labour Party, to Blairism (which adopted a lot of the general ideology of Thatcherism), to the weakening of ideas of solidarity, not to mention socialism, in the population as a whole. (It is of course not the only factor - these are problems the world over. But I think the miners’defeat had particular effects in Britain).

But - weren’t we wrong that a defeat for the miners would have a terrible effect on lesbian and gay rights? Aren’t things a lot better since then for LGBT people? This is a complex issue, which I can’t do justice to, here. But it’s worth making a few points.

A few years after the defeat of the strike the Tories came up with ‘Clause’, or ‘Section’28 - a part of the Local Government Act which outlawed the ‘promotion’of homosexuality (among other things as a ‘pretended family relationship’). You might argue that, on the whole, Section 28 wasn’t used that much, and certainly wasn’t the all-out attack on LGBT rights we feared - and we survived it. But this is because an enormous movement was mobilised against it. Across the country there were big demonstrations in protest. ‘Gay Pride’, as it was then called, grew much bigger - but there were demonstrations in many cities outside London. The marches didn’t stop Section 28 becoming law. But they made it harder to use.

That they happened was in part because of the example set by the miners, perhaps in a small way by LGSM, too (and other protest movements in the early eighties, to be sure, for example CND). There was, in the wake of the miners’defeat, a readiness for a political response to this new Tory law, a militancy which proved very effective.

We need that spirit of militancy again, now, facing this new Tory government and the attacks it’s gearing up to launch. Cameron and the Conservative leadership might be fairly sincere in their commitment to some LGBT rights. But the Tory hinterland remains hostile. New dangers might come.

And in the spirit of solidarity we should, in any case, support those other groups the Tories attack - the poor, migrants, the disabled, and - once again - the trade unions.